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1942-1945 - Japanese Occupation

At the Washington Conference of 1921-22 on limitation of armaments Great Britain agreed not to fortify any base east of 110 east longitude, and after 1922 Singapore became the seat of British naval power in the Far East. The naval base at the north end of Singapore Island was further developed and was considered virtually impregnable. The fleet maintained there remained small, however. On December 8, 1941, when Japan declared war on Great Britain, Singapore was prepared with only two capital vessels, since Great Britain had never seriously considered having to defend the land borders of the country. The Japanese moved easily from Thailand to Kedah and on down the Peninsula; on February 15, 1942, the British surrendered.

In occupying Malaya the Japanese diverged from the tactics used in other parts of Southeast Asia in that they made no pretense of permitting Malayan self-government. Malaya and Sumatra were briefly combined in an attempted union. The Japanese made few changes in government in the Peninsula, and for the most part the Malays neither opposed nor actively aided the invaders. The civil servants continued to function much as they had done under the British; they had, however, slightly more authority during the war than before it, with the result that the eventual return of the British was felt to be a loss.

Although the whole Malayan population suffered during the war years, particularly because the cessation of rice imports led to general malnutrition, the most marked hardships were borne by the Chinese community. Thousands of Chinese were killed in the first days of occupation, and many thousands more fled to the interior, where they became "squatters" on the fringes of the jungle. The British, in preparing to leave Malaya, had given rapid training in the arts of sabotage to the members of the only group sufficiently organized and anti-Japanese to carry on armed resistance, the Chinese of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). These men formed and led the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and developed a civilian supporting group called the Anti-Japanese Union; the membership of both of these was almost entirely Chinese, and the Chinese who settled at the jungle's edge formed an essential part of the latter group, providing supplies and a means of communication to the armed groups which remained in the jungle.

In 1943, British intelligence officers made contact with the MPAJA, and an agreement was reached whereby it would take orders from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (Japan) in return for arms, ammunition and explosives. By the end of the war there were some 6,000 men in the resistance army; they had carried on few operations, however, and inflicted few casualties on the Japanese.

Mainly because the British plans for a military campaign in Malaya were made unnecessary by the surrender of Japan, the actual return of the British in September 1945 was ill-prepared. In the interim between the Japanese surrender and the British return, the men of the MPAJA emerged from their jungle camps and were welcomed as heroes of the war by much of the population. They provided a sort of government over some areas and carried out a summary justice on those they regarded as collaborators. When the British returned, the MPAJA agreed to surrender its arms, but many weapons were hidden for later use.

During the war the British Colonial Office had drawn up plans for a Malayan Union to be imposed on the country when the Japanese were driven out. The Union, involving great concessions by the Malay rulers and the state governments to a central government and formed with little discussion and considerable haste, was implemented by the MacMichael treaties between Great Britain and the Malay rulers in 1946. The imposition of centralization, accompanied by the intrinsic threat to long-recognized prerogatives of the Malay rulers and to the special position of Malays in relation to the Chinese, seems to have been responsible for the sudden growth of nationalism among the Malays, evidenced by the plethora of political parties which sprang up in 1945 and 1946.

Malay opposition to the Malayan Union prevailed over British hopes for a centralized government. On February 1, 1948, after months of discussions, the Federation of Malaya came into being. Including the nine Malay states and the two settlements of Penang and Malacca, it returned to the states many of their traditional rights; to the rulers their prerogatives; and to the Malays the assurance, by its citizenship provisions, that the Chinese would not in the near future become politically dominant. Although the Chinese political leaders had opposed the federation agreement, they accepted the government and agreed to cooperate with it.

In 1948, too, the Malayan Communist Party began an insurrection. Partly because the Communist's former tactics in Malaya, mainly through the infiltration of labor unions, were being successfully opposed by British policy and partly because of the change in tactics decreed to Asian Communist groups at the Calcutta Youth Festival in February 1948, the Malayan Communist Party began to follow a policy of terrorism. Their targets were local, mainly police stations and communications lines, and many Chinese Kuomintang leaders and European planters were murdered. On June 16, 1948, the British authorities declared a state of emergency. Gradually, the guerrillas were driven into isolated jungle areas, but the operations against them were a tremendous drain on the country's economy. To cut the guerrillas' supplies of food and equipment, the government was obliged to resettle nearly half a million persons, among them thousands of Chinese families who since World War II had been squatters on the jungle's fringes.

The emergency also complicated enormously the process of Malayan independence the British being loath to withdraw from the country while large-scale operations remained necessary - and added further tension to Chinese-Malay relations. However, with the gradual freeing of most of the country from terrorism between 1950 and 1955 and after long negotiations between the British, the Malays and the Chinese, a constitution acceptable to all groups was finally drafted. On August 31, 1957, the Federation of Malaya attained independence (merdeka) within the British Commonwealth of Nations.



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